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February 1, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Hard-Boiled Gazetteer
In a duel of literary traditions, pitting various regions of the world against one another, my money is on Latin America. Yes, I know it’s never smart to bet against Shakespeare, but is there any chunk of the globe whose writers are as dedicated to high-end literature as that swathe of land from Mexico to Patagonia? From Borges through García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Puig, Bolaño, and on and on, Latin American authors have led the way in innovation and influence for at least the last 50 years.
But what of crime writers? Relatively few Latin Americans toiling in the crime genre have made it to the U.S., and that is definitely a trend that needs reversing. We need to see more of such established and internationally revered literary crime writers as Rubem Fonseca and Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Fonseca is woefully undertranslated, and Taibo’s eight “independent detective” novels are only available if one looks very hard for them. Elsewhere in the world, both of these writers are discussed in the same breath as the other Latin American giants, and they should be here, too. The literary thriller has never been more popular in the U.S. than it is now, and the Latin Americans should be standing tall among such international crime authors as Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Michael Gruber, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, and Iain Pears—all of whom bring structural complexity, thematic richness, and high literary style to crime-drenched plots.
Although the literary crime writers of Central and South America have been slow to find widespread acceptance in the U.S., that’s not true of the hard-boiled crowd who write about that little island 90 miles off the shore of Florida. Tropical climes make great settings for noir, and none is better than Cuba. It’s hard to say whether Havana before or after Castro makes the most evocative setting for that special mix of fatalism and style that defines noir. Who can choose between big-finned decadence, on the one hand, and rusting idealism, on the other? There have been stellar crime novels set in Cuba for quite a few years, but most of them were written by Americans. Now, finally, we’re starting to see Cuban noir written by Cubans, including Leonardo Padura, José Latour, and Daniel Chavarría. As trade restrictions continue to ease, it only stands to reason that we will find more Cuban noir turning up on our shores. Will the guayabera shirt replace the trench coat as the standard uniform of the hard-boiled hero? Don’t bet against it.
The following list is by no means exhaustive, but it should introduce hard-boiled fans to the riches of Latin America.
In the Heat, by Ian Vasquez. 2008. Minotaur, $23.95 (9780312378097).
Miles Young is an aging heavyweight boxer looking for one more payday. He agrees to help a rich woman find her runaway daughter as a way of earning money to pay the fight promoter, but naturally, the case turns out to be something more than it first appears. This is a straight-ahead, hard-boiled detective story with few flourishes (more Joe Frazier than Muhammad Ali), but the atmosphere is superb. Think Miami without the neon or an ever-so-slightly-less-bent version of Kent Harrington’s Tijuana (in Día de los Muertos).
Inspector Espinosa series, by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza.Representative title: A Window in Copacabana.2005. Holt, $23 (9780805074383).
That there aren’t more mystery series set in Rio and available in the U.S. remains a mystery in itself. This one, however, starring the melancholy, introspective Inspector Espinosa, sets the bar very high for anyone else. Combining the intuition of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg with the literary bent of Leonardo Padura’s Mario Conde, Espinosa is a hard-boiled fan’s delight, brooding, boozing, reading Melville, admiring beautiful women, and slowly, pessimistically managing to solve crimes.
Mario Silva series, by Leighton Gage.Representative title: Buried Strangers. 2009. Soho, $24 (9781569475140).
Despite the hero being a cop, Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa novels feel much more like hard-boiled detective stories than they do procedurals. Gage’s Mario Silva series, on the other hand, fits comfortably into the procedural family, comparing favorably to Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels. Gage, a part-time resident of Brazil, vividly evokes a country of political corruption, startling economic disparity, and relentless crime, both random and premeditated.
Vast Emotions and Imperfect Thoughts
, by Rubem Fonseca. 1998. Ecco, $24 (9780880015837).
Fonseca, a recluse in the manner of Thomas Pynchon, is considered one of Brazil’s most important writers, but relatively few of his novels have been translated into English. This one starts with a nameless Brazilian film director finding a bag of gems in his apartment, left there by a Carnaval dancer. Like Haruki Murakami, Fonseca uses private-eye conventions and his love for pop culture, especially American films, to construct a highly stylized world in which a disoriented hero floats adrift, searching for the comforts of genre but finding only “vast emotions and imperfect thoughts.”
Doc Ford series, by Randy Wayne White.Representative title: Twelve Mile Limit. 2002. Putnam, $24.95 (9780399148736).
White’s celebrated series moves regularly from Florida, its home base, to various points throughout Latin America. This time former black-ops agent Doc Ford must return to Colombia, scene of many of his dirtiest doings, to rescue a friend presumed lost at sea but actually kidnapped. It’s formula, yes, but White enlivens it with crisp action, vivid tropical landscapes, and some of the best writing about the sea by anyone in or out of the crime-fiction genre.
Adios Muchachos, by Daniel Chavarría. 2001. Akashic, paper, $13.95 (9781888451160).
Alicia, a bicycle-riding Havana hooker whose broken-pedal trick attracts clients, teams with Victor, a rich foreigner, to scam a businessman. But who is scamming whom? Maybe Alicia is a little too happy-go-lucky for a noir protagonist, but you can hardly blame the girl for wanting to have fun. And besides, there’s plenty of nastiness standing in her way. A steamy, sexy, kinky, pulpy mix of comedy, mystery, and murder. Also check out Chavarría’s Tango for a Torturer (2007), about another Havana hooker with a nose for noir.
Fidel’s Last Days
, by Roland Merullo. 2008. Crown/Shaye Areheart, $23 (9781400048687).
Set in contemporary Cuba, Merullo’s thriller captures the anxiety of a nation on the verge of regime change. A highly secret group of anti-Castro fanatics centered in Miami hopes to speed up the transition with a daring plan to poison the dictator. Former CIA agent Carolina Perez is the key player in the scheme: she will transport the poison to Cuba, where the disaffected minister of health will administer it to Castro. The typical landscape of Cuban noir—splashes of color set against images of decay—is captured vividly, but Merullo goes further, taking the reader into the minds of ordinary Cubans and revealing an uneasy mix of fear and determination.
, by Stephen Hunter. Simon & Schuster, $25 (9780743238083).
Yet another riff on assassinating Castro, this one takes place in 1953, even earlier in time than Lawrence Block’s Killing Castro (below), and stars Hunter’s recurring character, ex-marine Earl Swagger, who is sent to Havana by the CIA to assassinate emerging leader Castro. Meanwhile, a Russian agent is sent there to protect Communism’s rising star. Hunter uses pre-revolutionary Havana beautifully, juxtaposing Cuba’s tropical languor and moral ambiguity against Earl’s unflinching rigidity, a man who would not bend confronted with the most bent of all cities.
, by Martin Cruz Smith. 1999. Random, $24.95 (9780679426622).
It was somehow inevitable that Arkady Renko, Cruz Smith’s world-weary Russian cop, would eventually find his way to Cuba. His beautifully evoked Havana—at that transitional moment when the Russians were leaving—makes the perfect foil for a melancholic investigator who doesn’t particularly believe in the very things he stubbornly defends. And, yet, he soldiers on, trying to make sense of an old friend’s death and feeling almost at home in a strange tropical land—a cop who cares about the truth in yet another country where the system is designed to distort it.
Havana series, by Leonardo Padura.Representative title: Havana Gold. 2008. Bitter Lemon, paper, $14.95 (9781904738282).
Cuban police detective Mario “the Count” Conde still feels “solidarity with writers, crazy people, and drunkards,” but his melancholy seems to be seeping even deeper into his soul in this fourth installment of Padura’s Havana series. Padura’s lush, free-flowing prose is the perfect vehicle to describe both the crumbling elegance of Havana and the tortured emotional agonies of a hopelessly romantic yet terminally morose hero. For hard-boiled fiction fans who are soft-boiled at heart—and who can’t get enough of Debussy, Ravel, and Frank Sinatra singing “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.”
Havana World Series
, by José Latour. 2004. Grove, $23 (9780802117540).
In a documentary-like narrative that recalls the gritty fatalism of the Jean-Pierre Melville film Bob le flambeur, Latour tells the story of a gang of Cuban crooks, funded by New York Mob boss Joe Bonanno, who sets out to rob Meyer Lansky’s Capri casino on the last day of the 1958 World Series (when the coffers are overflowing). The portraits of the gangsters are full-bodied, but it’s the fictional blue-collar crooks who give the novel its appeal and afford the best view of Cuban life. Latour is also the author of two novels about a Havana schoolteacher who defects to the U.S. The Havana portions of Outcast (2001) crackle with authenticity, as the hero, his idealism exhausted, fights the twin evils of bureaucracy and conformity.
Hemingway Deadlights, by Michael Atkinson. 2009. Minotaur, $24.95 (9780312379711).
Really, shouldn’t he-man Papa have been solving crimes long ago? When he learns that a drinking buddy has turned up in Key West’s harbor impaled by an antique harpoon, Hemingway turns sleuth. By setting his story in Key West and Havana in 1956, first-novelist Atkinson gives us Hemingway on the verge of serious decline: the booze taking its toll, the writing stalled, the paranoia that would eventually lead to his suicide beginning to take hold. The mystery itself is perfectly satisfying, too, and our hero even spends a drunken evening chugging rum with a couple of revolutionaries named Fidel and Che. Here’s betting this is the first of a series.
Killing Castro, by Lawrence Block.2008. Hard Case Crime, paper, $6.99 (9780843961133).
Published pseudonymously before the Cuban missile crisis and only a few years after Castro took control of the government, Block’s 1961 mass-market paperback anticipates the various off-the-wall attempts by the U.S. to assassinate the Cuban leader. The ending may seem far-fetched in light of later events, but as a kind of alternate pulp history, the novel works just fine, with plenty of blood and bullets and, as always with Block, a fine feel for character.
King Bongo, by Thomas Sanchez. 2003. Knopf, $25 (9780679406969).
Sanchez uses 1950s Havana as a conduit to meaning and emotion, just as he did with Key West in Mile Zero. The action begins on New Year’s Eve 1957, when a bomb explodes at the Tropicana nightclub. Legendary Havana drummer King Bongo narrowly escapes the blast, but his sister disappears in its aftermath, prompting a search that extends to all levels of Havana society. Sanchez shows us a city and a people on the eve of revolution but filters it all through the emotions of a conflicted hero. Havana is both setting and soul in this pulsing bolero of a novel.
The Red Jungle, by Kent Harrington. 2005. Dennis McMillan, $30 (9780939767502).
Harrington’s utterly compelling blend of noir thriller and adventure novel sends Russell Cruz-Price, a dissolute journalist—think Fowler in The Quiet American—straight into a Guatemalan heart of darkness. It all starts with a coffee plantation and a giant Mayan sculpture, called the Red Jaguar, said to be buried on the plantation. Drenching the reader in the corruption of South American politics and in his hero’s mania to discover the sculpture, Harrington produces a thriller that twists its knife far deeper than most.
Día de los Muertos, by Kent Harrington. 1997. Dennis McMillan, $30 (9780939767304).
Tijuana is the ultimate border town, where sin, corruption, and decadence have their way with all comers. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil captures all these aspects of the city vividly, but compared to Harrington’s unrelenting noir tale of lives gone terminally wrong, Welles’ film feels like a romantic comedy set on the wrong side of Des Moines. From the blood-spurting eruptions of violence, to the dim chance of escape that keeps us hoping, and, above all, to the soul-deadening rot that hangs over the Tijuana landscape like tequila-soaked acid rain, Harrington hits every note perfectly in this story of Vincent Calhoun, a maverick DEA agent turned smuggler.
Héctor Belascoarán Shayne series, by Paco Ignacio Taibo II.Representative title: No Happy Ending. 1993. Poisoned Pen, paper, $14.95 (9781590580387).
Taibo, an international favorite, crafts his brooding, anarchistic detective novels with a shrewd and devastating economy of language. This is the third book in his award-winning Shayne series, starring a one-eyed Mexico City “independent detective” who brings both humor and a certain existential angst to his cases. Here he finds a dead body in his office bathroom, but not just any dead body—this one is dressed like an ancient Roman soldier, complete with toga and sandals. What Rubem Fonseca is to Brazilian crime fiction, Taibo is to its Mexican equivalent.
Six White Horses,
by Gaylord Dold. 2002. St. Martin’s/Minotaur, $23.95 (9780312290252).
Jesse Palmer went AWOL from the marines to avoid a drug frame-up orchestrated by sadistic sergeant Harry Wilde. Now Palmer is living in a sleepy Mexican town, happy enough until Wilde shows up with a plan, and it isn’t pretty. Desperate characters, seedy locales, and a pat but satisfying ending all contribute to the appeal of this neo-noir thriller by veteran suspense author Dold.
, by Kem Nunn. 2004. Scribner, $25 (9780684843056).
Feminist and environmental activist Magdalena has barely survived a vicious attack by tattooed thugs. Washed ashore at the borderlands, where California and Mexico meet the Pacific, she is rescued by the reluctant Fahey, an ex-con and surfer turned worm farmer. This saint-and-sinner dichotomy serves as the launching point for Nunn’s signature theme of the search for redemption. Nunn invented surfer noir (Tapping the Source)35 years ago, and now he ups the ante with the first crime novel starring a worm farmer.
In the Forest of the Night,
by Ron Faust. 1993. Tor, o.p.
Faust, a popular thriller writer in the 1970s, made a comeback in the ’90s, when Tor published four of his books, rescuing him, it was claimed at the time, from living in a tent. Set in a revolutionary Central American country similar to Nicaragua in the ’80s, this tale concerns a medical volunteer, about to assassinated, who is rescued by Felip Fuerte, a wisecracking mercenary. The plot meanders on from there, but the novel is notable for the politically incorrect Faust’s muscular style. He writes beautifully of the ramshackle villages, the wild rivers, and the rain forests, evoking both Hemingway and Peter Matthiessen.
Red April, by Santiago Roncagliolo. 2009. Pantheon, $24.95 (9780375425448).
This international best-seller recalls both Camus and Roberto Bolaño. Set during Peru’s recent period of bloody revolution, it stars naive prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar, a rule-following bureaucrat with a serious mother fixation, who is swept up in a series of murders during Holy Week that forces him to abandon his belief in the world as a well-ordered place. He reacts violently to the loss of that belief, leading to a shocking scene of sexual assault. Translated by the celebrated Edith Grossman, this troubling yet hypnotic novel veers from deadpan absurdist humor one moment to vividly evoked terrorist horror the next.
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